The Naked Frontier

Letter From Chile

In order to do research for a novel, I spent January and February of this year in Chile, thereby avoiding a particularly bitter winter in Washington, D.C. My intention was to pass most of my time in Santiago and spend only a couple of weeks touring the South. After about a week in the capital, I met up with a Californian named Jeff who was going "trekking" (the hip term for "backpacking") in the Torres del Paine national park in Patagonia. Like most of the foreign "ecotourists," he was lingering in Santiago only for as long as necessary to coordinate travel plans to the South. He needed a Spanish-speaking travel companion, and I needed a tent, so we teamed up and flew down to Punta Arenas.

I finally returned to Santiago a month later, having been sidetracked at every turn by the natural attractions of this longitudinal land. In retrospect, the journey proved to be an indispensable part of my cultural survey of the country: in few other places is the connection between geography and cultural destiny more consistently tangible than in the case of Chile.

The central fact of this geography is, naturally, the Andean cordillera, the imposing and omnipresent wall of rock and ice that has served to isolate the country in a remote corner of the New World for most of its history. The Andes serve as a constant symbol of Chile's frontierish situation—ecologically, culturally, economically, and...

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